TransGrid reveals mass Win8 tablet rollout



news NSW electrity grid operator TransGrid has revealed plans to deploy a sizable fleet of Windows 8-based tablets across its operations, as part of a wider comprehensive revamp of its desktop PC infrastructure that will also see the organisation migrate the majority of its desktops to virtualised instances through thin client technology.

Most major Australian organisations have shunned Windows 8-based tablets since the new Microsoft operating system was launched in 2012, with most of the local tablet market still made up of Apple’s iPad devices, plus some devices based on Google’s Android platform. However, signs have started to emerge over the past several months that the Microsoft platform might prove attractive to organisations due to its ease of integration with their existing Microsoft infrastructure.

The biggest deployment known so far of Windows 8 tablets in Australia has been the Queensland Department of Education, which confirmed in early June that it would deploy Windows 8 tablets to some 14,000 secondary school students in the state. Another organisation known to currently be conducting a Windows 8 tablet trial is the Tasmanian police force, which revealed its interest in mid-May.

However, in tender documents released in late June, TransGrid, which operates some 12,600km of electricity cable throughout the state and has some 1,000 staff across New South Wales, revealed that it would be one of the first known Australian organisations to commit to a Windows 8 tablet deployment.

The organisation is currently conducting an effort to replace its aging fleet of 1,500 in-house PCs and laptops. As previewed by CIO in July 2011 (TransGrid was conducting a trial at the time), the organisation is looking to replace most of its desktop fleet with virtual desktop alternatives.

“The incorporation of Desktop Virtual Infrastructure (DVI) is intended to remove the requirement for desktop computers and reduce demand for some other types of computers,” wrote TransGrid in its tender documentation. The organisation has some 489 desktop PCs currently, and 968 laptops, which will also be replaced, but not necessarily with virtual desktop alternatives.

In addition, the document states: “Tablet computers will now be incorporated in the Principal’s list of standard computing devices.” According to TransGrid’s documents, it needs some 20 “standard commercial” tablets and some 260 more “lightweight commercial” tablets, in addition to a further 100 “hardened” tablets — presumably for use in the field.

In general, government agencies tend not to specify precise details of tablets they require during tendering processes. This allows a variety of vendors — from Apple to HP, Dell, ASUS, Acer, Lenovo and others — to supply responses based on their own models, which tend to differ substantially in terms of their technical specifications.

However, in its documents, TransGrid specified that its tablets must be able to run Windows 8 Pro (x64 edition) and come with an Intel Core i5 or i7 or Intel Atom ARM processor, as well as a minimum of 2GB of RAM, an Intel HD Graphics 4000 graphics card, 1920×1080 resolution, a 64GB solid state hard drive, and 3G/4G capability. In addition, the organisation specified that the tablets must come with a USB 3.0 or microUSB 3.0 port, as well as a cradle/docking station which offers further capabilities including a Gigabit Ethernet port.

The specifications clearly rule out the dominant iPad and Android tablet devices available in Australia, which currently represent the vast majority of the Australian tablet market, limiting TransGrid’s procurement to Windows 8 devices, with specifications similar to traditional laptops.

TransGrid is sticking with Windows 7 for its desktop and laptop machines, choosing to avoid upgrading to Windows 8 on those traditional devices. It plans to contract suppliers over the next several months and take delivery of its new machines in September and October.

This is a very interesting request for tender document from TransGrid.

Firstly, it’s interesting, but not unexpected, that TransGrid is shifting to virtual desktop infrastructure for its desktop PCs, and moving predominantly to lightweight laptops in its laptop fleet. This is increasingly the way that major corporations and government departments are going; the virtual desktops are easier to manage centrally, and lightweight laptops are usually more than capable enough these days to handle processing loads which previously ran on heavier, more powerful machines.

Secondly, I find it absolutely fascinating, and perhaps a little worrying, that TransGrid has decided to specifically deploy Windows 8-based tablets in its tablet fleet. What we see here is clearly an attempt by the organisation to do precisely what Microsoft wants major organisations to do with Windows 8 — replace some of their laptop and/or desktop fleet with dockable Windows 8-based devices which can function as tablets and laptops/desktop machines, based on what the user needs at any particular moment.

The rationale here for TransGrid is pretty clear. The organisation’s legacy applications probably would require some retrofitting to run on the modern iOS or Android platforms, so even though those platforms are much more popular in the tablet market than Windows 8, the organisation has gone with what it knows, specifying the full version of Windows 8 for its tablets that will be able to run both traditional desktop applications with no compatibility issues, as well as access web-based applications on the road through a nice touchscreen interface.

Plus, there is the ancillary benefit that Windows 8 is easy to manage centrally through the bolt-on applications (think System Center Configuration Manager) which Microsoft added to Windows Server in the Windows 7 era and has continually upgraded since.

However, not only has TransGrid drastically limited the competition in its tender process here (never a good look for a government-owned organisation) but personally, I can’t help but think that overall, the organisation might have missed a long-term opportunity.

Let’s put it bluntly: Windows 8 makes a lot of sense on paper to an IT manager, but when it comes to using it in practice, people are universally confused by it at this point, even those who have been using Windows variants for decades. Microsoft’s ‘half-in, half-out’ approach with Windows 8 has alienated a large majority of its user base, as it did with Windows Vista previously, leading to a situation where most people prefer to use an iPad or Android device as their main tablet, even if they do use Windows on the desktop.

It might have proven very difficult for TransGrid to bring legacy applications to a state where they could be delivered through a web browser or natively on iOS or Android. But there is probably no doubt that in the long-term, say in the next decade, it will be forced down this route eventually. Desktop applications are gradually going the way of the dinosaur in corporate Australia, as cloud computing takes root and everything starts to be delivered through a web browser. Every Australian organisation — including TransGrid — will need to face this reality eventually. And it’s not just tablets which these apps will need to be delivered through. Smartphones, also, are a target platform for corporate apps, and Microsoft’s compatibility credentials are nowhere near as strong in this space as they are on the desktop.

What TransGrid’s is delivering to its users with its Windows 8 tablet rollout, coupled with a Windows 7 (often virtual) desktop rollout, will no doubt feel very right to its IT management right now. But I suspect that it will feel subtly wrong to many of its users, who have become accustomed to a desktop/tablet separation at home based around iOS on the tablet, and who, in any case, would probably in many cases also like to see integration between their corporate apps and their dominant daily computing platform — their smartphone.

What we’re seeing here from TransGrid is a very good, by the book, medium-term IT end user computing strategy. I approve of it. It’s solid, it’s based on technology from vendors which is proven, and it’ll get the organisation through the next few years — perhaps even the next half-decade. But I can’t help but feel that there’s a deeper missed opportunity here for a long-term transformation that would deliver much greater flexibility and productivity gains. Perhaps that’s happening in the background. We can only hope.

Image credit: Dell


  1. “but when it comes to using it in practice, people are universally confused by it at this point”

    you must be joking. ‘universally is a bit strong’.

    don’t believe the hype you read in tech blogs about windows 8 being unusable. i know of plenty of older people (over 50) who jumped from windows 7 to 8 without issue.

    if you have been using “windows for decades” and can’t use windows 8, then you are either stupid or haven’t given yourself enough time to adjust. that’s it.

  2. Using my Surface Pro as an every day machine, I can totally see how it would work in an enterprise environment. Personally, I think it is such a great device that unless the next iPad runs full iOs, eventually I can see it’s days being numbered. The Surface can just do so much more that a standard tablet can’t.

  3. What a bizarre article.

    What exactly is wrong with a tender process where the organisation states its specifications and tenderers are invited to respond with a compliant or close to compliant specification? That’s how tenders are supposed to work, Renai. If Apple or Samsung cannot provide something to that specification, that’s their problem.

    Windows 8 is fine because it offers the best of both worlds – legacy app support and a pleasant tablet experience. And it’s only going to get better with 8.1. You compare it to Vista, which is just ridiculous.

    You accept that this is a good pragmatic choice, but say it’s a missed opportunity. Why is it a missed opportunity to avoid having to spend hundreds of thousands reinventing the wheel so their internal apps work with iOS and Android? You refer to the smartphone – well by and large Microsoft stuff tends to be reasonably interoperable with iOS and Android – you can’t say the same the other way around. Apple and Google like running a closed shop, which is fine if your needs align completely with their ecosystem limits, for many corporations that isn’t the case.

    Finally, Windows 8 is only confusing if you don’t spend five minutes to learn the basics of navigating around it. Obviously they are not going to roll out thousands of tablets without some training to their staff on how to use them appropriately. And honestly, if you’re a tech journo who is supposed to follow this stuff acutely, I really have to wonder when you say you’re ‘confused’. You can’t possibly be that aloof, so I am putting down your ‘universally confusing’ comment as a rhetorical flourish.

    • And if the tenders said “must run Apple iOS” or “must run Android 4 or higher”, i.e. to completely exclude Microsoft from tendering, then that would be fair too, would it?

      Tenders should specify functionality, not the method by which that functionality might be implemented; that’s the supplier’s job. This is a government body that we’re talking about. It’s not their money; it’s ours, and they have a duty of care not to waste it. Windows tablets are not exactly the cheapest option, are they?

      Windows 8 is a “pleasant tablet experience”? Says you! I think users would need more than your “five minutes” to learn how to use them. More money down the drain. Would those users need training on iPad or Android tablets? Probably not; certainly, not as much.

      “legacy app support”? Yes, that’s true, and is undoubtedly a big plus for Windows tablets. at least in the short to medium term. But how many of those legacy apps run *well* on a Windows 8 tablet? Not too many, I’d wager. Not having been designed for mobile, the controls would be fiddly to operate with fingers. You’d probably need to use the stylus. Either that or rewrite those apps to work properly on mobile, possibly through a web browser. Remeber, Microsoft is pushing HTML5/JavaScript/CSS as Windows 8 Metro’s primary development language, so you’re not going to able to bring over any of your legacy code; you’ll have to start again from scratch. In which case, are you any better off than if you’d gone with iOS or Android?

  4. Great article and some interesting analysis. I am probably in the middle someone on this issue. My research into this exact topic certainly suggests that many desktop management teams are pushing the Win8 tablet barrow based on mistaken assumptions (happy to share that research with you). However, this is possibly NOT the case with Transgrid. Increasingly, I am seeing the device discussion in utilities being framed in terms of a multipurpose ‘tool of trade.’ This does not mean that the users will not have their own devices, or possibly even BYOD. It means that specialised ‘Work Contexts’ can merit the deployment of a dedicated device, be it a Win8 or Android or iPad or whatever. I’ve done a number of consulting engagements (in utilities and public services sectors) where it was clear that there was compelling reason to deploy a very specific solution on a specific device, though the device selection certainly comes at the tail end of the decision making. The question that needs to be asked is: what are the benefits of the applications being run in what environments, by whom and when? These solutions often have significant impact not just in the field, but also with back-office processes. If these specialised aps are compelling from a cost / benefits view, AND those are not available as web clients, nor will be available as such in the near term, then a decision must be made on what standard (in this case, the OS) will be supported.
    I would also argue against the idea that limiting the tender to a Win8 machine is anti-competitive or would breach procurement policies. If anything, the Win8 eco system is being fed by a vendor community that is highly competitive – certainly more so than iOS.
    Of course, over time, I expect to see most COTS enterprise apps migrate to web based or at least cross-platform clients, and this will make device selection increasingly more fluid and flexible. Unfortunately, we are a a long way from that day.

  5. swtiched to win 8 at home … runs great, no issues..

    took about an hour to get used to it..

    will wait for surface mark 2 before i get a tablet though

Comments are closed.